Tag Archives: history

106. Us, the busy universe

There’s always something. Always a need or an unfilled want. Always. You can’t escape it. We have stuff that we have to take care of constantly and forever. Time doesn’t stop for anyone or anything. Rich or poor, fat or thin, human is human, and part of being human is being busy, because everything is busy all the time.

Sometimes it blows my mind how occupied we have to be. Even when we stand still, we’re busy little machines. Sometimes I wish I could just pause it all and let the moment last a little longer, a purely stationary sensation. I’d like to actually do nothing for a while.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the sense of accomplishment as much as the next guy. It feels good to finish things. It feels good to work for something. But I don’t remember signing up for a life of work.

I don’t want to sound lazy. To be honest, none of us are lazy. How can we be? Right now we’re hurtling through space at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour. We’re busy even if we’re just sitting down reading text off a computer screen. You think it’s easy to be a biological machine? We’re full of moving parts, and those parts need maintenance.

We have to take care of our bodies. We’re thrust into this world, given all the possibility for greatness, but required to monitor and care for our physical selves. That said, we ARE our bodies, not simply conductors, not puppeteers pulling strings. Part of life is being aware of your body and its process of birth, growth, and death. This thing doesn’t just drive itself.

And so I eat. I sleep. I don’t have a car or bike so I walk a lot. I look both ways before jaywalking. I have good hygiene habits, mostly. For this I still suffer from allergies and bad teeth. I have to tend to those concerns. We all do. The body does not sit idly even if we do. I have to shave. I have to suffer headaches. I have to stay hydrated. I’ll have to get health insurance, eventually. We’re machines from the get-go and all machines need constant maintenance, even the most well-oiled machines among us.

I’m not complaining. Get that thought out of your head right now. I love being alive. As Carl Sagan would put it, I’ve “humaned” from the universe and to the universe I give my greatest gratitude. Life is beautiful. It’s just… Mysteriously calculated.

Maybe this is a bit extreme, but imagine a world where everything was just fine how it was now. Imagine if nature in all its infinite wisdom came to the realization that everything was great. Why expand any further? Are we part of a giant masterpiece awaiting a final stroke of the paintbrush? Is there ever a final stroke? Like Valéry said, is the poem ever truly finished? At what point should we be content and take a break?

Thing is, I don’t think it can stop. There would be no NOW without an overarching cycle of Start and Finish. Even that idea of “Finish” is an illusion. Heck, even “Start” is an illusion. Things simply ARE, no matter what form they take. We imagine we are unique because we teach ourselves that this is true but when boiled down to the basics, we’re the same stuff as all stuff, we never “started,” we just continued from where we were to now in a different way, and there is no “finish line,” just another way of being the universe.

The universe cannot stand still because it knows nothing else. Everything is a circle, a cycle, a revolution, an orbit, a whirlpool. Everything is made so that it can spin apart and be made again. If we stopped things now, there’d never be anything new, and I think the universe likes to make new things.

I guess what I’m most baffled about is how puzzling it all is. There are no answers. No one knows what happens after we die. No one knows why the universe exists. No one will ever know. And this mystery is true about everything, not just us. I’m talking about the mystery of hummingbirds and galaxies. Are we just a swirling mass of recyclable space dust? Are we cogs in an even greater machine? Are we anything at all?

We don’t know.

But we act like we do. We act like there’s an answer waiting. The white light at the end of the tunnel. That’s good and all, but forgive me if it defies my personal logic that I have to wait until I’ve croaked to find out what it was all about. In acting like there’s an answer waiting, we have given in to the machinery metaphor. We are part of a greater plan. We are on a path. We are born this way.

We often compare ourselves to rats who expect cheese at the end of the maze. And yeah, I recognize that not everyone agrees with the rat idea. Rats are gross. I agree. But the cheese part is accurate. We have this great idea about what this cheese is. Even the most atheist of the rats sees the end of the maze, even if there’s no cheese there, there’s still a conclusion. For me, that’s not enough.

Maybe I’ve been listening to a little too much Carl Sagan lately, but that all feels so strange to me. We’ve never been separate enough from the universe to expect something next. What comes next is we keep being what we’ve always been, just through a different lens. We are the universe. We are a way for the universe to understand itself, like a mirror, and when we move on from this biological form, perhaps we’ll return as another mirror on another planet, or maybe we’ll just become the planet.

I think that’s kind of beautiful. Reminds me that our time as humans is temporary, but our role as the universe could be forever.

How it came that we personified that concept by anthropomorphizing an ethereal creator in charge of everything is a little silly. I like the idea. I mean, it still fits. God is the Universe, the Universe is God. Tomato, Tomatoh.

How we let religion turn into violence is baffling, a very human thing to do. I do not want to be associated with a religion that has killed anyone, and this is why I feel more connected to the universe I literally came from, not the creative impulse of an omnipresent being. We made religion then let religion turn us against each other. There is death in the universe, as well, but when a star dies it’s not because the star believed in a different universe. It’s because it was time for the star’s energy to become something else. When I die, I don’t want it to be because (or for) my belief. I want it to just be another moment in an infinite string of moments of being a small piece of my bigger self, the Universe.

Anyway, it seems like the only seed of truth that’s permeated the collective chaos that is our religious disagreement is to love and live true.

Love and live true. Yet, we complicate things.

We complicate humankind when there’s already so many other things to take care of first, not just our biological bodies but the fallout of forming society. From birth defects to taking care of our ill to feeding the hungry to stopping violence due to inequality. Major problems. As humans, we’re pretty screwed up.

You don’t see a herd of lions forming a jury to convict someone of vehicular lionslaughter.

Society is such a fascinatingly wonderful and equally terrible idea. It’s this partially agreed-upon role-playing experiment that persists on a daily basis by sheer luck alone. I know that’s edging away from what Carl Sagan would say about everything being stupid chance, but I guess what I’m trying to say is there’s absolutely no need for people to have conflict, yet we never seem to learn. We’re basically the universe having a temper tantrum with a part of itself it’s not very fond of. We’re the acne of the universe and we’re being popped like zits.

We can do better. We don’t have to be a blemish.

I think we’re stressed out. I think we’re taking ourselves too seriously. We’re complex enough without all this additional weight on our shoulders. We’re lucky. We got the cool brains of the animal kingdom and we’ve built rockets and vaccines and hot water faucets. We have kick-ass language skills. We’re goddamn awesome with these brains. And they take care of a lot of stuff for us without us even thinking about it. We eat when we’re hungry and sleep when we’re tired, but for the most part our brains have things under control. We forget that. We treat ourselves like we’re vessels carrying souls, not bodies being bodies. Imagine living internally rather than externally. Try to think with your whole body, not just your brain. It’s hard to do. We’ve removed ourselves from our bodies, removing ourselves from the universe itself (or at least attempting to), and it’s stressful to go it on your own, isn’t it? Here we are, humans, floating alone in the river of time. Rather than being part of the shore, we invent a figure to stand on the shore and judge us from afar. Why add that burden to an already skewed sense of reality?

I’m stressed out just thinking about it.

We’re using our brains in such strange ways. Sagan said we are a way for the universe to know itself. Yeah, we think about the universe a lot, but usually we’re just thinking about how our hair looks. I think we’ve let ourselves get distracted by the most bizarre things, like cats chasing lasers. Stranger still, we rarely take a step back to consider these things from other points of view, like the cat who knows it will never catch the laser but scurries after it whenever it flashes near.

This thought was about wondering why the universe doesn’t stop. This is a big question. Comparatively  it’s like asking the snail why it doesn’t go any faster. It’s restricted by the laws of its form. The universe is restricted in the same way. So are we. The universe can’t stop and I know this. Birth and death and renewal is all the universe knows. Anything that comes to be in its image will know this pattern. This is the way of things. I suppose what I’m wondering is whether or not the universe can control itself.

If we are the universe thinking about itself, than we’ve had plenty of deep thoughts like this. We’ve seen out into the universe, into ourselves, with telescopes and microscopes, and we’ve likely only scratched the surface of the complexity of it all. Maybe we just don’t know enough. Maybe we’re not going to be the species that gives the universe its answer. Maybe we’re not even close.

When–and if–we ever get there, I wonder if the universe will stop growing. I wonder if the cycle would stop. Kind of like how when you see the secret of a magic trick, you can’t stop seeing the hidden wires. Through all this violence and foolishness, however, I hope the end is worth it. I hope humanity turns all this bloodshed into a profound lesson, like a Tarantino movie with a Wes Anderson ending.

Imagine not worrying about your immune system. Or drinking enough water. Hard to do. We’re born into a biology we can’t control and we make the best with what we’ve got. We shouldn’t expect anything else, really. To be born is to die. There can’t be an alternative. If the universe didn’t work the way it did, it wouldn’t exist, not in the way we understand it now, that is. Our brains are galaxies and galaxies spin out eventually, too. We can’t picture a non-universe in the same way we can’t picture being a non-human. Who knows? Maybe the universe has headaches, menstrual cramps, growing pains, and self-esteem issues like the rest of us. We’re all one, after all, and that’ll never stop.

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105. Greatness

I was born running. Felt it with my first breath, this need to chase it with a bigger, better one. We are born thinking we’ll be great. Some of us listened to the classical masterminds while we marinated in the womb if we had those parents who took that seriously. Maybe mine did. Fact is, we meet our gods before we open our eyes. Famous artists. Leaders of their kind. Idols. Some of us, we hear greatness while our ear drums are still forming and people wonder where motivation comes from. Already we look to the stars. And if we didn’t have any musical input from our parents, we met our gods in the delivery room, the masked doctors, the heroes who delivered us to our bearers. We owed them our lives for granting us our first cry and don’t think we ever forgot that. The rest of us, all of us, regardless of how it happened, what foods your mother ate, what lifestyle your parents brought you into, what Zodiac sign you fell under, we were born into prebuilt worlds we believed were made for us, and we were taught that we could do better.

I was born running. Born wanting. We must all start this way. For a couple weeks, as our nervous system finishes wiring together, we probably find it a bit confusing that we’re NOT famous composers or doctors or gods of any kind. We’re little balls of blubber with a fascinatingly vague understanding of the world. All we know is not too long ago we were an indistinguishable piece of the universe that has now sprouted arms and legs and vocal chords. We are born wanting to outrun our ancestors but we can’t even walk yet.

We forget about that drive. There’s too much else to focus on, like learning to share, follow directions, look both ways and tie your shoes. Your biggest goal is to survive until Saturday Morning Cartoons. The last thing you’re thinking about is what you want to be when you grow up, besides the Red Ranger, and that’s okay because goddammit it’s awesome to be a kid and we should be kids as long as we can.

Slowly it comes back to us. We see adults for what they are: experienced. We can learn from them. For a long time, they’re paid to teach us stuff and some of that stuff will stick and some of it will really change you. Things will start clicking. You remember the doctor. You remember music. You see the gods again. They’re familiar but you’ll never see them the way you once did. Now they’re simply experts. Anyone can be an expert if they put their mind to it. So what do you do? You put your mind to it.

Suddenly we’re running again. Chasing goals like butterflies, beautiful and hard to catch. We’re not alone. We’re all chasing something. After all, what else are we supposed to do? When we finally break out of our adolescence, we gasp for fresh air in a polluted atmosphere. The world is a mess and we come to learn this and then we strive to improve it. To better it. We were born destined to press onward, to build higher, faster, greener. The box gets bigger, we have to think farther, farther, farther to get outside of it. Observe science. Observe the population. All of us have an idea that we’re destined to stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, not with them.

To be honest I’m not sure what this all means.

Worldwide, it seems like we have a big problem with the want for better. I’m not blaming Bach or Motzart, but I have an inkling that introducing infants into the world with echoes of Beethoven’s Für Elise in their squishy brains might be like dangling a carrot in front of a rabbit, just out of reach. Not to say that no one ever catches that carrot (we DO have extremely talented musicians), but one man’s carrot creates a dozen more carrots, slightly bigger than the first. It’s as if we can’t NOT exist without carrots, carrotlessly, blissfully in awe at all the glory of the present state. Any architect, writer, politician, plumber, or hotdog vendor could tell you there’s always someone out there trying to one-up the rest of us, to dream grander dreams. We have become a species that sees greatness in others and strives to replace it with greaterness. And at the rate our population is growing, the pace of this Greatening is rapidly increasing.

Until when? Until there is nothing left to improve upon?

That is a world I do not want to see.

98. Hoarders

There used to be just two of us. Remember those days?

I was the hunter. You, the gatherer.

Now I knew you had a propensity for collecting things. It was your nature. While I was out skinning sabre-toothed tigers, you were filling half the cave with acorns and wild berries so that we would have sustenance through the winter when the tigers migrated. There was a need to collect a lot of things. We survived because of the Gatherer’s want for many.

These days, we don’t need to fill pantries with pounds of loose nuts and berries. For many, all it takes is a trip to the corner market to get food, if not ten steps to the refrigerator. We don’t really gather the way we used to. Instead of food, we go out into the world to gather money. Gathering is also no longer a gendered term. Man or woman, we’re all suckers in the same rat race. That refrigerator won’t pay for itself.

The point is, gathering is in our nature.

I say this because now instead of using the term “gatherer,” we use “hoarder.”

There are people out there with huge collections of polished antique silverware, but we call them Collectors. It’s the one’s with hallways lined with towers of newspapers that we call Hoarders. Simply having a lot of something doesn’t make it a “collection,” though. A billion bath-toy ducks could even mark you as a Hoarder, because who the hell would want to keep a billion toy ducks around? If you’re confused about the distinction between Collector and Hoarder, just know that the Hoarder’s house will probably have more cats in it.

We make them out to be crazy. We treat them like they’re breaking some human law, when in fact it is the accuser that should be on trial. We chastise them for gathering supplies for their cave. It is the accuser that is fighting human nature by shaping their lives after an IKEA catalogue.

I don’t mean to say that having a clean and tidy house is a bad thing. In fact there are health benefits related with keeping one’s house in good shape. If we have gained anything from our loss of gathering desires, it’s longer lives.

I’d argue that there are many of us “evolved” folks that still gather in small ways. Books. We gather books. Women, you gather shoes. Gamers gather achievement points. We gather photographs. A lot of us have trinkets like porcelain angels or cow figurines or old WWII propoganda posters, things we clutter our shelves with. Things we consider extensions of ourselves.

Different, of course, than the man with a thousand ashtrays. Or the woman still in possession of every article of clothing she’s ever owned. These are the hoarders. But if I have every National Geographic magazine, I’m a Collector. I suppose it has to do with value, both monetary and social. We all have this pretty clear idea of something with value and something without, though obviously there are some differences of opinion.

To the Hoarders, be careful. You don’t live in a cave. You’ll survive the winter. You don’t need to have a thousand of anything. To everyone else, do not point fingers. A Hoarder is more human than you are, they just need a little coaxing out of the cave.

94. Santa Clause

The older I get, the more I want to believe in Santa Clause. I find myself fascinated by the magic and charm of the old North Pole legend. Long removed from my childhood wonderment, the idea of a chubby man in a red suit popping presents down my chimney has since evolved into a respect for tradition and storytelling. I think it’s healthy to believe in at least one fantastic element in your life.

Obviously Santa is not real. He’s a marketing campaign gone viral. He’s a holiday season goldmine for children’s movies. He’s a figment of our imagination impersonated by actors in shopping malls.

And many will say he’s a symbol of capitalism. He’s racist and classist. He’s a lazy bastard who uses slave labor to create cheap toys. Not to mention, he’s a crafty criminal who breaks into our houses. Who knows what untold abuse those reindeer go through.

Yet we still leave out the cookies.

For those who follow along with the Santa Clause tradition, I commend you. Not only does Santa make a good tool for behavior modification around the holiday season, but it gives children a taste of real-world fantasy. While they’ve certainly read and seen their fair share of magic and wizardry, they rarely get to actually live it. Santa brings mystery into their lives. For a few years, they believe in the possibility of a fairytale.

Eventually that wears off and the wrapping paper repeats and the kid recognizes Mom’s handwriting in Santa’s signature. Then children often rebel against the idea, revealing the truth to their younger siblings and friends. We all act out against those who betrayed us.

It wasn’t until I’d long abandoned the idea of Santa that I recognized the other value of old Saint Nick. It was the story of him that I liked. It was the idea that such a tradition could be born, akin to the old tales of Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed, and that they could acquire a life of their own and truly thrive. These are stories that somehow feel engrained in the soil of the country, that grow with each new generation, giving grandiose, yet simplified explanations of traditions and history.

Santa served as a neutral character in comparison to the religious weight of the holiday, a figment of cultural imagination that we could all believe in without going to church. He didn’t preach or spread gospel around. He just wanted people to be merry. He wanted people to share with each other. He wanted families to come together. He wanted children to write wish lists and learn that being good was usually all it took to make wishes come true. It wasn’t about devotion, it was about believing in the dream.

Santa is a part of our cultural history now. He is a holiday creation, the bringer of gifts. He might’ve gone through a few revisions, but the story remains the same. As I get older, I remind myself to keep the tradition alive. I remind myself to believe.

9. Dominoes

Dominoes, the game, is fun to play, I’ll agree to this much, and once you’ve dusted the cobwebs from your elementary math skills, it’s pretty easy to score off multiples of 5. It makes for a good game at a smoky bar with a coupla beers and some classic rock on the jukebox, and if you wanna impress your elders, beat ’em at a game of bones.

However, when the word comes into conversation, I think not of laying pieces flat on a table, but standing them vertically like soldiers in a single-file line. I think about being a kid at my grandma’s friend’s house, setting out a few dozen dominoes across their kitchen floor in a swerving pattern longer than my fully-extended small intestines. It would take patience. It would take forever. But in the end, with one tender touch of the lead domino, the entire creation would collapse in an orderly fashion, one after the next, toppling like tiny tombstones.

It’s fitting that the word “dominoes” stems from the Latin word dominus, which means “master.”

This is what we become when we play with dominoes. We plan, we create, we destroy. We are the masters of these numbered blocks and we decide how the line will curve and we decide (unless there’s a cruel sibling or rambunctious pet nearby) when the line will crumble. There are few feelings as exciting and final as the knocking-over of that first domino. No going back now. With one goes all the others. God forbid you bumped the starter domino before you were finished.

So why do we do this? Why build and destroy?

The destructiveness makes the most sense. Why do you think we got so excited when we discovered how to harness fire? Here was this destructive element from which nothing seemed to survive. Fire became the explosive. Explosives became big, and, in turn, our thirst for destruction led to nuclear power and a few radiated Pacific islands. With one domino came the next, and the next, and the next.

Even deeper than that, take a look at how civilization is evolving.

We’re a society that builds its world like a trail of dominoes across the kitchen floor. This is how humankind has grown since Day One, when that first domino of civilization was set up to wobble proudly at the foot of our timeline. Then came another, and another, and soon we had millions of blocks stretching from the dawn of man to the premiere of The Dark Knight Rises. We never branched off. It’s been one long trail all along. But we don’t look back. Heck, we hardly acknowledge our history. Why would we? It’s much more exciting to just keep adding blocks.

Some day our history will catch up with us. Maybe the dominoes of yesteryear are already starting to fall, crashing through our ancestors and ancient civilizations, crumbling pharaohs, kings, and soothsayers, smashing through the dark, dim, and enlightened ages, breaking down the revolutionary and industrial revolutions, coming after us like an avalanche or a lit fuse. We’ve been setting up the pieces for thousands of years. Sooner or later, we’ll either run out of pieces or we’ll simply be crushed by the weight of all our choices, and quite frankly, I already feel the pressure. I look around and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the current result is pretty fucked up. But there’s that dominus in us that won’t let us stop. I mean, after all, what is more masterful than the feeling that all that we’ve created can be destroyed with just one gentle nudge? I think we like living on the verge of annihilation.

Unless we stop now. It’s not too late to take the lessons we learned from our first domino trail, pick the stable parts, and start a new trail somewhere else, preferably not the kitchen floor.